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Backlogged VA Means a Million Forgotten Vets

Photo: Houston VA

There is more than one way to forget a vet.

For one, leaving a veteran to the mercy of an ineffective, byzantine bureaucracy, where he will struggle to receive the healthcare and benefits he earned fair and square fighting Uncle Sam’s wars of choice. The Bush administration wanted its Global War on Terror, but it completely failed to anticipate the impact that rotating two million men and women in and out of a bloody two-front conflict would have on an already strained Veterans Administration benefits system.

If you are a veteran in northern California, where men and women of all wars are waiting an average of 10 months to get their disability claims processed through the Oakland VA (the most backlogged VA in the country, next to Seattle), then you’re feeling pretty well forgotten right now. According to news reports this week, about 200 “frustrated, often tearful” California veterans attended a Town Hall-style meeting Monday and told officials one by one that the Oakland VA is stalling and bungling their claims, so much so that the VA is actually “making their lives worse” than if they weren’t trying to pursue their benefits at all.

That meeting came on the heels of a VA Inspector General’s report (.pdf) that found significant mistakes and delays in processing veterans’ disability and healthcare claims at the Oakland VA. The report charged that 60 percent of brain-injury claims reviewed by inspectors had been mishandled. And the backlog is so bad that, according to the Los Angeles Times, the VA is now sending vets out of state to get faster service.

Not that it’s so great anywhere else. As of April, there were over 903,000 claims pending nationwide, with 65 percent of them active for more than 125 days. Another 256,000 disability claims are mired in appeal. That makes 1.1 million claims awaiting some sort of adjudication. According to Paul Sullivan, managing director for public affairs and veteran outreach at Bergmann & Moore, which provides legal assistance to veterans, waiting nearly a year to get a claim processed can be living hell for veterans who are suddenly out of work, dependent on family, suffering from the trauma of war, or simply trying to start over.

“A few years ago, VA was averaging five months” to process original claims, Sullivan testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs back in April. “These significant VA delays seriously harm our Veterans who need access to VA healthcare and who need disability benefits to pay rent, put food on the table, and pay other important expenses.”

He also pointed out that, according to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s own numbers, the VA has seen a 48 percent increase in claims filed since 2008.

“He expects the claim volume to increase by another 4 percent in 2013 to 1.25 million claims,” said Sullivan. “This means an already bad situation continues deteriorating. This is unacceptable for our Veterans.”

But it is surprising? No. While you might think this story just proves the federal government can’t be put in charge of the healthcare system, there is an even bigger lesson  here: the more that Bush & Co. politicized the war, the more they were forced to downplay its potentially ugly consequences  — like tens of thousands of veterans coming home with amputations, their heads cracked, bodies just not working right. This ensured the VA is forever trying to play “catch up”– not with resources, because Congress has been quite generous with VA budgets, but in knowing best where to put them and shifting institutional and cultural gears to accommodate the new demands.

Some of those demands were easy to anticipate. Sullivan and a host of veterans’ advocates had warned early on that the system was not ready for the mental-health cases that would surely come. They warned it would be expensive — very, very expensive. They fought hard for better screening so that the military would not send potentially unstable recruits into a potentially mind-blowing situation overseas.

As of today, more than 500,000 veterans have visited a VA health care clinic or hospital with an injury or illness. Some 100,000 of them have been diagnosed with PTSD. And we now know that many service members were sent to war despite having mental-health problems in the first place.

Not surprisingly, complaints are pervasive that the mental-health care for returning troops is inadequate. In some cases, particularly in the active-duty military, soldiers have complained of encountering outright hostility when it comes to PTSD claims, and once home from fighting overseas they now have to battle the bureaucracy to retain the benefits they were promised when they retire — or be forgotten. Just like the 31,000 vets who have been discharged with a “personality disorder” since 2001, many of whom were really suffering from PTSD.

As for cost, according to Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, who with Joseph Stiglitz wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War in 2008, the government had already spent $31.1 billion on veterans healthcare and disability benefits by 2010. She estimates that caring for our veterans over the next 40 years, including disability compensation, will cost the taxpayer between $600 billion to $1 trillion. And that’s not counting less tangible socio-economic costs borne by the veterans, their families, and communities.

America was hornswoggled into thinking this war would be a “cakewalk” right down to its impact on the volunteer military and struggling VA system. There were a few voices of reason, but the virile cry of warlust was overpowering. Now, the public’s romance with war is over, and everyone is calling for fiscal austerity. And the vets? A million of them are waiting silently in the queue, feeling forgotten.

Perhaps this Memorial Day we should practice remembering, not just memorializing.

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a contributing editor at TAC and co-host on the Empire Has No Clothes podcast. Follow her on Twitter @VlahosAtQuincy.

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